21st Nov 2011
At the recent Ra.One launch event, Shah Rukh Khan, Arjun Rampal, and their Bollywood cronies did their best to distract us from the PS2 bargain bin contender masquerading as "the first Indian full cycle PS3 game". Unfortunately, even the collective might of King Khan and his backup dancers couldn't mitigate the banality of the Ra.One game. However, when the stage smoke dissipated, I managed to quiz Sony Computer Entertainment's Country Manager, Atindriya Bose, on all things console and Sony's role in promoting local game developers.
Elsewhere in the world, the PS3 and X360 are virtually neck and neck, but in India the PS3 is dominant. What is the secret behind this and what are you doing to maintain that hold?
Two things: One is definitely the Sony strength - not just from the brand point of view but also from the distribution and trade-related point of view. Being such a dominant consumer electronics player, our distribution reach is obviously very strong.
The second thing is, with PlayStation, we are able to address the huge market. Our product range starts from Rs 6000 for the PS2 and goes right up to the PS3 starting from Rs 17,000, with a hand-held product at a very affordable Rs 8000 in between. This allows us to encompass the overall market. Moreover, in a nascent developing market, everyone will not get into next-gen [consoles] from the start. So this has given us a strong hold on the Indian population. Our product basket, we think is apt for India and that automatically also rubs off on the PlayStation 3 sales.
Ra.One is one of the very few games to use the PS3 SDK. Why do you think there aren't more such examples? What is stopping Indian game developers?
Yes, there are a lot of developers with a lot of talent who can do it, but it also requires monetary backup. Sony has been able to identify a few. We are working very closely with three studios - Trine, Gameshastra, and Immersive Games. How do we take them to the PS3 fold? With motion gaming - because right after Ra.One, we will also roll out a motion gaming cricket game.
Monetary issues and the capability of remaining invested for such a long period are barriers to creating the type of games that you see internationally. However, if you look at casual games, motion gaming, and the PlayStation Portable minis, I think there's a huge opportunity coming up for Indian developers to identify their niche and make it big in the world.
I have seen Ra.One and played a bit of it. It seems more like a PS2 game ported to the PS3. How long will it take for an Indian studio to come up with a AAA PS3 title?
AAA quality needs a certain investment and requires certain timelines. Can India produce it? I am very confident it can. Most probably that is restricted to another one-and-a-half to two years down the line. As of now, competence is evident, but we have to find the best mix that will allow them to come up with this sort of a [AAA] model. However, in terms of the objective that it [Ra.One] had and the type of gameplay, it has met our expectations and international standards.
Well, it sure didn't seem that way to me. Generally, movie-to-game adaptations aren't successful, mainly due to rushed schedules and such. What will make Ra.One stand out?
The rushed schedule is a huge challenge, but this production has a set of like-minded and creative people, who are ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder on the game side as they are working on the film side. I think that's what makes this marriage successful. You cannot generalise game success on the basis of its movie association. The rushed schedule is an element that perhaps results in a bad movie-based game, but at the same time there are an equal number of many successful movie-based franchises.
Empirically speaking, that's a very small number.
True, but we realised that we can bring in game development expertise, but along with that we also have to invest in the IP (intellectual property). However, the Indian market is still too nascent for us to do too many of them (video game adaptations). If we look at this opportunity, our game development competence and enthusiasm remains the same, so game quality remains the same. We have got a very strong IP, and the storyline has been written by the film team in the pre-production stage. This made us feel that we can make a success out of it.
In effect, you've just contradicted yourself. I believe game development should be promoted at a grassroots level. Xbox does something similar through Xbox Live Arcade, while the PS3 has PSN Shorts. Do you plan on doing something similar in India to promote digital downloads?
Yes, we are looking at it. It's in the first development stage of identifying quality developers, on the basis of which we can take a pick. We had a developer conference recently, and then this project [Ra.One] started flowing. As we are growing, we are also evolving. Like I mentioned earlier, these transactional games - the minis or motion gaming - will provide an opportunity for Indian developers. Many more of them will come on board the PlayStation platform.
Has PlayStation India planned anything special in the next few years?
The big step in terms of direction, other than marketing, is getting products at the right price and time. Rolling out the product line has always been about "How do I keep using Indian content and how do I make content continuously cheaper?" On the Indian content side, Ra.One is a huge example. In terms of making content more affordable, we have done local replication on the PS2. We are also evaluating what can be done on the PS3 local replication side. I think these are the important steps that we will keep evaluating.
I believe the Blu-ray format, which is imported and hence attracts customs duties, is keeping PS3 software prices high. PC games in India are generally cheaper. Is it possible to extend the courtesy to PS3 games as well?
This is where the local replication comes in. However, if you look at the newer games on the PC platform, they are priced pretty high up and not at the Rs 200 price range. They start at Rs 1000, while some are even priced at Rs 1500. On the PS3 it's a bit more tricky because, yes, we have to be more accessible to the Indian market, but we have to mix and match. If India is cheaper for certain big games, we can create a major massacre in the international markets just by exporting them. So you need to have a certain alignment in terms of the catalogue. The platinum games are the ones that need to be looked at in terms of pricing strategy, which we are evaluating for local replication. We are hopeful that we can take the same strategic steps as we had for the PS2.
Regarding the PS Vita, what will be the price and time differential between the Indian and international versions?
No time differential other than the logistics, which will be 15 days at the maximum for the customs and shipment formalities. We are looking at the first quarter of next year.
Indian gamers visit Sony's brick-and-mortar stores expecting to find consumables such as batteries and certain accessories that you wont find in a Croma or similar stores. The Sony World outlets don't seem to be equipped in that respect. Are you doing anything to correct this?
We are looking at it. I think it's true more in the case of the PSP than other consoles, for which we have made all the peripherals available. It's only on the PSP where we have identified certain issues with the adapters and lithium ion batteries. We are checking why demand is so high, which shouldn't be the case. These aren't peripherals, but parts of the device that shouldn't go bad. So we are evaluating the quality and also the availability side of it. At the same time, we also need to realise that there are a lot of licensed third-party products. For Sony World outlets, we use different channels and different ways. However, if there is an expectation, we will try meeting it.
The PlayStation installed base is considerable in India, so console and Blu-ray drive failures aren't uncommon. Whether it's an optical drive failure or a complete meltdown, you have to pay 50% of the price of the console-
Provided you are beyond your warranty.
But generally that indeed is when components start failing.
Given the repair costs and import taxes, we have evaluated that it isn't going to be any cheaper even if we import and repair it. We have done a complete analysis because we actually repair those products.
Do you actually repair the consoles and then return them to the original owner?
No, we don't give it back to the same customer; the consumer gets an equivalent product. We definitely refurbish, and therefore we know what has exactly gone wrong. The Indian volumes aren't large enough to justify distributor repair facilities. All put together, I think what we offer is the most optimal solution. As the business grows, these solutions will gradually get even more optimised.
Rumours are that the recent international (and Indian) PS3 price cut is a precursor to the next-generation console, which has been due for a long time. Any comment on that?
No comment on the rumour. In terms on the pressure that is on me, I think I have to sell a lot of PS3s before I can think of anything else. On an immediate basis, we are gearing up towards the PlayStation Vita launch, which is the the next-generation console in the handheld arena.
If it does happen, how long will it take to reach our shores?
Every product on the PlayStation platform is being launched in line with the international availability, so we will keep doing that. We believe in India, which will be a strong growth driver. On the PS3 side, motion gaming is what we are putting all our shoulders together for.
How strong are the PS2 sales in India?
It is still the largest-selling format. If I am doing a number upwards of 3,25,000, 40-50% is courtesy of the PS2. The growth is huge in the PS3, but the PS2 shows more seasonality. That's because it is becoming an 8-14 year old kid thing. Therefore, school holidays have become the most important sales factor for the PS2. The PS3's growth is more uniform and much more impressive in terms of the numbers. The PSP, with a pricing of 8000, has automatically seen 30% growth. All in all, it's a pretty healthy scenario.
Do you play any games?
My favourite is Uncharted, and I'm waiting for Uncharted 3.
Well, who isn't.
[Laughs] Yeah, who isn't. Before I joined the company, I hadn't played anything other than Zuma. Once I joined, I started playing games, and because I have gone through that cycle, I know what the journey of a gamer from a novice is like. And I think that's what adds to my marketing brain, so to say.
I'm sure the people at Xbox India are shivering already.
Interview: Atindriya Bose, PlayStation India
We discuss Ra.One, Indian gaming, and the PS Vita.
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